Chris Felsenthal leapt out of the golf cart, ran to hit the ball on the third hole and sprinted back before the water sprinkler made its way around on the course.
Alice Benga, another regular in the nine-hole league, watched her, a bit in awe. Felsenthal is 98.
Benga, more than 30 years her junior, was recalling that game, which they had played shortly before the pandemic began.
“She played very well that day, and I played very poorly, but the result is the result,” says Benga, 66.
Felsenthal beat her. She laughed while Benga recounted the story. She’s an avid, no-nonsense golfer, committed to the game for more than 60 years. Her age hasn’t dimmed her competitive streak.
“I think it’s time society got a fresh new look of what they think of senior citizens,” Felsenthal says. “We’re not decrepit.”
Felsenthal lives in Kirkwood, Missouri, and drives herself to the Paradise Valley Golf Course to play with the league she’s been part of for more than 30 years. She’s one of a growing number of seniors who are devoted to staying as active as possible into their 90s -- and beyond.
Grace Warden, now 101, had been taking exercise classes for a few years before a recent injury sidelined her. She attended the 45-minute classes twice a week with her daughter, Nita Herold.
Herold says they found the class through a catalog from the nonprofit Oasis Institute. For decades, the organization has offered a variety of exercise and educational programs for seniors.
Juliet Simone, chief program officer for Oasis, says the classes range from gentle chair yoga to more vigorous step, strength and stretching workouts. She credits the advancements in public health, medicine and awareness, along with increased programming and funding, for keeping older people active longer.
“We’ve finally flipped the script on what was an ageist adage, ‘Give your old bones a rest,’” Simone says. The new script is to move more: Being active and engaged will help you stay healthier and feeling better for longer.
She’s also noticed a general attitude shift. People are more willing to try new things, regardless of their age. That type of attitude and resilient spirit are recurrent themes among those who continue to keep moving.
Herold says Warden has survived a number of hardships in her long life, including her husband’s and son’s cancers.
“She has a wonderful attitude and great sense of humor and is still as sharp as can be,” Herold says. Her centenarian mom still balances her own checkbook.
Seniors enrolled in eligible Medicare programs can participate at no cost in one of 15,000 SilverSneakers programs across the country. Cheryl Seabright, who was named the program’s instructor of the year, says the classes offer more than a physical benefit. The mental and social components are just as vital to improving a person’s well-being.
One of Seabright's regular participants, Ruth Ann Brenly, 97, takes hourlong SilverSneakers classes three days a week, along with taking a 2-mile walk outside every day. She started after her husband died 17 years ago.
“It was something for me to do and get out of the house,” she says. “I think if you sat around a lot, you would be moping.”
She admits that it isn’t always easy to get started. She has a pacemaker and takes seven different pills in the morning, mostly for a heart ailment. Her ability to focus on the positive rather than on her pains and troubles seems to be a key to keeping her going.
Charlotte Jaycox, 90, also joined a program after losing her husband, and now takes ExerStart classes twice a week. She has met several other women who were widowed.
“I like the exercise, but I really like all the friendships, which I need because I’m alone,” she says. “We talk a lot, and we exercise and we laugh; that’s important.”
In the U.S., women live about six years longer than men, according to 2021 CDC data. That’s reflected in the participants in these exercise programs, where women far outnumber men.
Felsenthal, the golfer, can attest to the power of consistency. April through October, she finds her way to the course. She leaves any aches at home on those days and doesn’t dwell on any troubles. Many of the younger senior players in her league tell her she inspires them.
“I want to be out and playing when I’m 98 years old, have a good attitude about it and play a decent game,” Benga says. She admires her friend’s outgoing and happy demeanor.
And she respects her game.
She’s asked Felsenthal for a rematch.